In Liberati’s debut novel, seemingly magical creatures visit an amnesiac grandmother and help her put her life—and mind—back together.
Beloved schoolteacher Ruth Lily has struggled for the past year, crippled by grief-induced dissociated amnesia after the death of her husband, Roger, in a violent car accident. Her therapist, Dr. Brooke, urges her to turn her attention to the garden that she and her husband cultivated together, as “grief work” to help her cope. Within that garden, she encounters the First Creatures, childlike entities who offer her emotional support as she begins to forge new friendships, attend social functions, and connect better with her now-distant son, Bryce, and his wife, who are expecting a new daughter. Not every First Creature in the garden brings easy comfort, however; for example, an amphibianlike entity called Mr. Gabriello slowly returns Ruth’s missing memories in exchange for notes that her grandson, Hayden, has hidden around the garden. Mr. Gabriello helps her recall her times with Roger, from their first meeting to their wedding and beyond. Finally, most chillingly, she remembers the car crash—and the other shocking fatality that struck her family that day. The novel uses short, rapid-fire chapters and a simple prose style; its muted tone in the face of fantastical events only accentuates its magical realism. The story is as much about coping as healing, as it explores the emotions, such as love, hope, peace and joy, that people often lose after tragedies. The First Creatures act as avatars of these feelings, and they’re odd but nonthreatening. Velo, a tutu-wearing rabbitlike creature, is likely to become a favorite of many readers, but several characters outside the garden are equally quirky, like an overly frank girl who lives next door and a stammering priest with a haunted past. Each effectively serves as a reminder of the life that Ruth is missing. The author puts great care into portraying how grief alters relationships and turns day-to-day minutiae into insurmountable struggles, yet the novel ultimately offers a hopeful, cautious message of healing and compassion.
No-frills prose underscores a charming, heart-wrenching tale about confronting and surviving grief.